Lionel Richie, Master of Reinvention!


Photograph by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Any Lionel Richie fans out there? The other day, while tooling around town, I did something very retro: I listened to the radio! Yep, and when Richie’s hit All Night Long (All Night) came on, I cranked up the volume and sang along like a teenager.

Then I thought, whatever happened to that guy?

Well, it turns out the popular R&B crooner did not go gently into oblivion after all. Instead, he’s switched genres to country music, and he’s at the height of his game. Why country?  Might be because country fans still buy most of their music the old fashioned way, on CDs. Richie’s new album, Tuskegee, a collection of duets with country stars, is currently topping Billboard’s chart, and breathing life into a severely disrupted industry.

What Richie is doing – changing genres, reinventing his career, and climbing back – is what all of us need to do to avoid the downside of disruption.

When Harvard’s Clayton Christensen introduced the term “industry disruption” in the 90s, it was a relatively infrequent occurrence. Today, a trickle has become a flood.  From the music industry to FM radio to brick and mortar retailers to dentists, everyone and every industry is facing at least the potential for getting kicked in the groin.

It isn’t just technological, either, although what’s happened to Blackberry and Nokia often makes it seem so. More and more industries face not just technological disruption but demographic, economic, political, regulatory and even lifestyle. Today’s dentists face disruption as consumers get fewer cavities (fluoridated toothpaste), and new dental chains spring up offering discounted oral care to the masses.

When you start looking for it, disruption is everywhere. It creates winners and losers in its wake. Take magazines. The Audit Bureau of Circulation reports that magazine circulation in the first half of the year was down another 10 percent from last year’s decline. The New Yorker declined by 17.4 percent. Time is down 31 percent. Even Cat Fancy is down 23 percent. As I always say, when cat lovers stop buying your product, it’s time to paw your way back by getting serious about innovation.

Normally I might define innovation as “the process by which you grow your business.” For firms facing disruption, it’s the way you go about rethinking and reinventing your company and your unique value-add to that company to help lead the future.

This was my message last month as the closing speaker at a conference for professionals in the pool and spa industry, which has seen a 60 percent drop in business due to economic disruption. Turns out that even the affluent population, the only income group that can still afford in-ground pools costing a minimum of $60,000, cut back on such non-essential luxuries just like the rest of America. One speaker at the Chicago conference was from the recreational boating industry – where sales are down 55 percent.

When facing disruption, the place to start is with a reality check: take stock of where you are today, and be brutally honest about assaulting your assumptions. That’s what Ford chairman William Ford did in 2008, when sales went into freefall for all auto-makers. “The business model that sustained us for decades is no longer sufficient to sustain profitability,” Ford declared.  And then he focused laser-like on ramping up innovation in new vehicles and cutting costs. Result: Ford never required a dollar of government bailout money to survive and sales are up 13 percent.

It’s vitally important to get in touch with your customer. What has changed with them? What do they value now, and how can you provide it. In periods of disruption, value becomes a moving target. The value we provided yesterday may not be sufficient. Needs may have evolved.

To help them better understand the affluent buyer, the pool and spa industry hired a leading consumer researcher of the affluent. Their focus groups revealed a pervasive attitude of turbulence, yet a reservoir of resilience and optimism.

“Today’s consumers have managed to create a sense of stability around themselves and their families in a very uncertain world,” researcher Doug Harrison noted. “They have come to accept that this is the way the world works now. And they seem to have realized they need to move forward with making the most of their lives.”

For pool and spa professionals willing to change with their customers, the affluent buyer is now willing to spend on luxuries that are truly meaningful, such as the experience of being at home with close friends and family. But only if you reduce the hassle of purchase and installation and maintenance, and can the dishonest hype and salesmanship and empower the customer with knowledge.

Last year I attended a dinner in Rochester and happened to be seated beside the CTO of Kodak. He and I and the others around the table were all speakers at a regional economic development forum the following day. Nice guy. Studied at Cal Tech. But I couldn’t help but think: why is he here? And why does he seem so calm when his house is on fire?

Kodak declared bankruptcy shortly after that event, the latest example of digital disruption finally doing them in. Various commentaries appeared after Kodak’s surrender, and all rightly acknowledged Kodak’s many attempts to get its mojo back. Having followed Kodak for a number of years, and knowing former employees of the company, it would be unfair not to acknowledge their attempts to innovate. But ultimately, what it comes down to is too little, too late. Don’t let it happen to you. If you’re facing even the gentle breeze of a future disruption, it’s time to take action before it’s too late.

Robert B. Tucker is president of The Innovation Resource Consulting Group and a frequent speaker at industry and corporate meetings. You can reach him at or by calling (805) 682-1012.